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Federal approval will see Muni red lanes spread to 50 streets across SF

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Muni red lanes are seen near Geary at Taylor streets. An SFMTA red lane report found that overall collisions on three red-colored streets — Geary, Third and O’Farrell—dropped by 16 percent. (Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

Muni is about to paint the town red.

Muni’s latest experiment, the “red carpet” transit-only lanes has split San Franciscans’ opinions, but now the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is contemplating at least 50 new streets to play host to the transit lanes.

Bus riders and numerous studies say they’re a boon to transit, speeding up the previously molasses-slow buses and trains during commute hours. An alliance of homeowners and merchants, however, decry the lanes for making traveling by car more difficult, potentially driving away customers from mom and pop shops.

Love them or hate them, however, newly granted federal approval will now allow Muni’s red lanes to sprout all across The City, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

A list of “Potential Future Red Lanes” provided to the Federal Highway Administration as part of the lane approval process, which was obtained by the Examiner, show nearly 50 new proposed sites for red lanes.

The list of potential red lanes contains some previously announced future lanes, like those slated for Geary Boulevard as part of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project, or on Geneva Avenue for the Geneva Bus Rapid Transit project.

Still, many of the streets are new suggestions.

From Innes Avenue in Hunter’s Point to Columbus Avenue in North Beach, from Judah Street in the Inner Sunset to Mission Street in South of Market, those lanes touch many San Francisco neighborhoods. Many of the new red lanes are also downtown, in a bid to speed up bus service as traffic congestion grows ever-worse for cars in The City’s densest neighborhood.

The evaluation of how well red lanes speed up transit will be included in an evaluation of creating laws to legalize the creation of red transit lanes nationally, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

“Red Transit Lanes are still an experimental device,” Doug Hecox, a spokesperson for the administration, wrote to the Examiner in an email, and added that soon may change.

The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices has a technical committee that determines new street markings — yellow cannot be used in pavement coloring, for example, but purple is allowed in lanes for electronic toll collection.

So San Francisco may pave the way for the legalization of red.

With the above map, you can scroll and discover where in The City proposed Muni “red carpet” transit-only lanes may be in the future. Red lines on the map indicate proposed lanes, purple lines indicate existing “red carpet” lanes. 

The SFMTA was granted the ability to expand its use of red lanes as an “experiment” across San Francisco on June 2 by the administration. Some of those lanes are existing transit-only lanes, but are not red, and many of them require further planning and approvals by the SFMTA Board of Directors, according to agency records.

When installed, the SFMTA will report back to the highway administration on the number of vehicles driving in transit-only lanes, parking violations in the lanes, the behavior of private vehicles turning and blocking buses, collisions and transit travel time to measure their success.

Painting existing transit-only lanes won’t change their function, merely their color.

As part of an earlier experiment, just over nine miles of red transit-only lanes stretch over San Francisco now, including on Third, Mission, O’Farrell and Taraval streets.

Studies of those existing lanes find they do what the SFMTA designed them to do: Speed up transit service and make the streets safer.

Overall collisions on three red-colored streets — Geary, Third and O’Farrell streets — dropped by 16 percent and injury collisions dropped by 24 percent at a time when they did not change significantly citywide, according to an SFMTA red lane report sent to the Federal Highway Administration.

“The data we’ve already seen shows this is a proven treatment that works. It works to improve reliability, and to reduce collisions, and that is a huge win,” said Rachel Hyden, executive director of the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group.

A recent independent study found similar speed and safety benefits at the SFMTA. Still, neighbors are up in arms over the red lanes.

Roberto Hernandez, a San Francisco native and long-time Mission District advocate sometimes referred to as the “Mayor of the Mission,” said he was shocked to hear the Muni red lanes are still classified as an “experiment.”
“They never told us this was an ‘experiment,’ never,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez and the community conducted a survey of businesses last year, whose owners said they saw a significant drop in visits from drivers after turn restrictions were enacted alongside the red lanes, threatening the existence of businesses there.

Hernandez also joined a group of neighbors and merchants from Taraval Street and Geary Boulevard who are pushing back against the creation of red transit lanes. The group visited Sacramento late last year to protest the lanes.

The SFMTA spent millions of dollars, Hernandez said, “to make the buses go two minutes faster. That’s all they got. Two minutes faster.”

Hyden from the Transit Riders said that’s a common complaint, but she feels the two-minute benefit is worth more than it sounds because the experience of riding the bus “feels” faster.

“You’ll hear from people that the amount of time saved is not worth it,” she said. “[But] when asked how much time riders thought they saved, people are claiming 10 minutes.”

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